Wherever the towers of big development rise, the rents rise with them. And as the rents hit nosebleed heights, New York vanishes. Neighborhood by neighborhood, borough by borough, this is how you kill a city.
From the glitzy corridor of the High Line in Manhattan, to the Downtown Brooklyn neighborhood around the Barclays Center to Long Island City in Queens, where Mayor de Blasio’s buddy Rob Speyer is hoisting three extravagant slabs of glass into the sky, our city is dying. It is a victim of its own so-called success.
People want to come to New York. Taylor Swift urges them in, singing, “It’s been waiting for you,” as if the city had nothing better to do but anticipate the arrival of newcomers. Bloomberg filled the whole town with tourists until we were bursting at the seams. Global oligarchs come to stash their dirty money in empty penthouses atop sky-high splinters, giving us nothing in return but long, dark shadows.
Meanwhile, New Yorkers hurry from job to job, hustling to make enough to cover the rent. Median rent for vacant apartments is nearly 60% of median income, by one measure. If you make $100,000, a solidly middle-class sum in most places, you might qualify for low-income housing, but you’ll have to enter through a metaphorical poor door.
In between all this hustling, God forbid we should need our shoes repaired or shirts cleaned. Small businesses are being decimated. Every month, we lose another thousand mom-and-pops .
They’re not closing because business is bad. They’re closing because the landlords are doubling, tripling, even octupling the rents — or simply denying lease renewals. With no penalties to stop them, landlords leave the spaces vacant for months or years, waiting for a national chain, a bank or a high-end business to pay the asking price of $40,000, $60,000, $80,000 a month.
Apparently, New York’s been waiting for you Starbucks, Olive Garden and Applebee’s. And for you Ralph Lauren, Marc Jacobs and Michael Kors.
Small businesses in New York City have no rights. You’ve been here 50 years and provide an important service? Tough luck — your space now belongs to Dunkin’ Donuts. You own a beloved, fourth-generation, century-old business? Get out — your landlord’s putting in a combination Chuck E. Cheese and Juicy Couture.
And despite de Blasio’s rhetorical fears about gentrification, his progressive pro-development push may well only hasten the trend.
That’s why I started the #SaveNYC campaign. We’re collecting video testimonials from New Yorkers and out-of-towners, celebrities and small business owners, asking City Hall to preserve the cultural fabric of the greatest city on earth.
First, we must pass the Small Business Jobs Survival Act. This bill, languishing for decades and quashed by Christine Quinn when she was City Council speaker, would give small businesses a fair chance to negotiate lease renewals and reasonable rent increases. It would keep our neighborhoods cohesive, helping to slow the tsunami of chain stores and put an end to landlord warehousing of empty, blighted spaces. It is our best hope.
Imagine a city filled with empty super-condos, money vaults in the sky. Our streetscapes will be sleek windows on the dead space of bank branches and real-estate offices.
There will be no more bookstores, no more theaters, no more places for live music. No more places to sit on a stool and drink a beer with regular folks.
When that day comes, and in some ways it is already here, what city will this be? It will be a hollow city for hollow men.
In a poem, John Updike warned: “The essence of superrich is absence. They like to demonstrate they can afford to be elsewhere. Don’t let them in. Their riches form a kind of poverty.” He was right.
It is late, but it’s not too late.